An old woman and her sandwich saved my life. Not that I was starving. I wasn’t. In fact, I hadn’t had an appetite in three days. Moreover, I had no wish to live. She didn’t know that. But, still, she wouldn’t let me die.
Mom reeked of respectability and intelligence. She could entertain a crowd, outpace a runaway train, and beat the devil himself to the punch line. And she could outdrink all the other moms at our daycare center. Her liver didn’t appear to mind. Her brain cells did. But they didn’t let on until much later.
The winter I turned twenty, my world froze hard and deep. Not that December was ever particularly warm in Chicago. But that year, the trip home to Milwaukee on the Greyhound bus left me shivering even after I got inside Mom’s house. The holidays were tough. Lots of memories. Not the jolly kind. But I faced the season with all the joy I could muster. After all, Mom loved Christmas. It was the day after Christmas that got her down.
When I bustled through the door, a blue-green Christmas tree about six inches high with holes for lollipops stood on the phone stand. A rainbow of candies stuck out on each side, aching to send a diabetic into insulin shock. An adorable miniature Santa with his cutesy reindeer attached to his well-appointed sled stood ready for takeoff at the edge of the coffee table. Various Santas, elves, and other decorative pictures adorned the walls. The Christmas tree was bare, waiting for my brother, Jack, and I to do the honors. Which we did with cups of cocoa near at hand and mom’s eyes twinkling.
She sat regally, her evening drink resting in her grasp, comfortably, like the old friend it was. She glowed at our progress and cheered us on with only an occasional, “Missed a spot,” which we would amend with clumps of tinsel and shots of laughter.
God, it was good to be home. I couldn’t think why I had dreaded it.
During the whole Greyhound ride across the snowy landscape, my stomach had churned. Cityscapes and rural townships had passed in picturesque glory. Yet I had only smelled the dank odor of bodies crushed into seats, heard the overworked and underpaid—or so he said—driver grumble, and felt the crack in the seat where the ragged plastic rubbed into my jeans.
Now, as Christmas songs played and snow fell in fat flakes, my brother and I decorated the tree, and my mom watched—happiness pooling in her eyes—I wondered at my moodiness. Why was I always so darn glum? Couldn’t I just relax and enjoy myself?
So I did. I enjoyed the gift exchange. Early Mass. The open house when mom’s friends came and sampled her dark fudge and the variety of snacks we had laid out. I savored every happy smile, every teasing joke, even washing the mountain of dishes in warm sudsy water. There was a reason for the season, and I knew what it was. Love. Joy. Peace on Earth. Goodwill toward men.
After everything was cleaned and put away, exhaustion hit. I lay in my attic room staring at the blackness, as there was no window to peer through. My first year of teaching had left me bewildered and insecure. Was I really cut out to lead kids to educational enlightenment? So far I hadn’t had a whole lot of luck getting anyone to shut up long enough to define the week’s spelling words, much less discover the astonishing exploits of early explorers or memorize the time’s tables. Who knew that eight-year-olds could get so rowdy? Sheesh. Five months in and my teaching fantasy had cracked under the pressure of thirty-one hyperactive little kids. Didn’t take much to make me tumble. But it was a job. That took me away from home.
Why? Mom had been great that year. Life was good. Be happy. I fell asleep convinced that my pep talk had done me good.
Morning came. I knew because the sun rose and nearly blinded me when I went outside to see how much snow had fallen through the night. I stood on the porch amazed at the beauty of fresh snow spread over the neighborhood. Dressed in white caps, the houses along the street matched like siblings at a family reunion. The expanse of woods in the distance put seasonal greeting cards to shame. Even the university across the street arched its towers and pinnacles in newfound pride at thrusting beyond—not just gross ignorance—but the current weather conditions.
I froze. Perhaps not literally but certainly figuratively. The tone, the volume, the acid ‘tude told me that Christmas was over even though the season had just begun.
I didn’t need to respond verbally. She knew I would come. She could hear the front door close no matter how softly I pressed the latch into place. She would hear my footsteps, no matter how carefully I tread. She would know, with some kind of extra-sensory freaky-weirdness when I stood in her doorway.
“Damn you! I said come here. Now!”
Jack had left early. He had only come home for a couple of days. The best days. No fault of his that he had to return to work. Before things got out of hand. Again. He always said that he was older and wiser. He was right.
I faced mom alone. Well, not entirely alone.
At Mass, I often stared at the lights, the windows, the statues, anywhere but at the tabernacle. Or the altar. The priest swept in and out of my peripheral vision so often, I only noticed the color of his vestments, not his face or form. The vestments rippled deep red.
But that Christmas my eyes had strayed. The golden tabernacle glowed, as if in a spotlight. Must be the sun on the snow, I reasoned. Yet it perplexed me. No slanting rays reached that far. As I sat there, battling my inner demons, I finally settled down and faced the gold box. The house of God. The home of faith. The reason for the season. And for an electrifying moment, I knew that Someone lived inside that box.
Her demands were the same as they had been the year before. Her fury spewed forth at the usual rate. She drank and smoked, nearly setting her bed on fire that night. Numbness came to the rescue. As always. Meals prepared. Refused. I took down the decorations. Perhaps to hurry the season along. The tree got sent to the curb. Tinsel froze on the branches.
Sunday afternoon, I took the Greyhound bus back to Chicago.
As I peered out the window, avoiding every possible human encounter, I decided that I just couldn’t care anymore. Like every kid who had been lied to, I had struggled for so long to believe that perhaps I had simply misunderstood. That a lie wasn’t really a lie. I hadn’t been tricked. And heaven and hell weren’t the same place.
My appetite had died the moment mom called my name in that tone. Too chicken to kill myself outright, after all, it was a sin to do that, right? I figured I just didn’t have to fight to stay alive anymore. I could let death have what despair already prepared, an empty soul.
It was my resolution. Die. As simply and as easily as possible. Before the New Year rolled around, so I wouldn’t have to worry about breaking any promises.
In Chicago, I lived in a house with an old woman named Patricia. I paid a meager sum from my meager salary and put medicinal drops in her eyes every night. A fair exchange. She didn’t ask much of me. We lived across the street from the church, so she attended social gatherings to her heart’s content. She also kept a stack of sultry romances on a chair in her living room. Considering her advanced years, I found her selection rather astonishing. Apparently, she didn’t have any cardiovascular issues.
It was noon when I climbed the steps to her home that she had lived in with her husband of forty years; she had the pictures to prove it. I naturally had to pass through the living room to get to the stairway in order to sneak up to my attic apartment. Painted a sky blue with one window facing north and one south. Not that I could see much more than various roofs and a few stray birds, but it was adequate. And adequate was all I had asked for.
I slipped inside, shut the door ever so softly, quite certain that she’d be napping in her chair and nearly jumped out of my skin when she sprang out from the kitchen like one of those New Year’s Eve’s poppers that idiots blow in other people’s faces. Like that’s funny or something?
She grinned. A Cheshire cat would’ve been proud.
“Katherine? You’re home!”
I hate it when people state the obvious and then wait. As if they really want confirmation of reality. “Uh. Yeah.”
“Oh, good! I just made a sandwich! And I’ve got a nice glass of cocoa ready! Here! Come in and get warmed up!”
Dang. What was up with all the exclamation marks? Her whole body shivered with the delight of a pen smacking the paper with a dot at the end of an exclaim.
“Uh. No. Thanks. I really appreciate it. But I’m not hungry.” No, I didn’t tell her the truth. There is no good way to tell an eighty-something old woman who has survived the demise of her beloved husband, the ravages of breast cancer, the Great Depression, and a World War that I’d given up on life and wanted to starve myself to death as an easy way out.
She shook her head.
What? She couldn’t just shake her head and smile at me like that. It wasn’t fair. I hated my life. My mom’s manic-depressive, schizoid, personality disorder ruined everything. I couldn’t hope. I couldn’t live and be happy. Life was a damned lie and that was all there was to it.
“I made grilled tuna with chips!”
In a moment of insane distraction, I actually tried to figure out whether she meant she had grilled the chips with the tuna or if she just screwed with syntax like a possessed scrabble demon.
Bloody hell but that woman was determined. But so was I. My misery must end. I would not eat another bite of food till…well… Gee. Killing yourself was frowned upon, and I might not get a seat at the Heavenly table. So what? I clamped my lips shut.
Then I made a huge mistake. I stood still and let her look at me. Really look. And she saw. Tears formed. All cheer fled. Compassion arrived. And ran me over.
She took my arm and started chatting. A blue jay at the bird feeder filling in all her feathered friends on recent gossip could not have done any better. I hardly noticed when she led me into the warm kitchen and pressed my shoulder hard enough to force my knees to buckle so that I actually sat at the Formica kitchen table. The grilled tuna sat on a plate with little flowers on the border. The chips spilled around the edge. A cup of cocoa sat within easy reach.
It was her question. Not mine. I should have been the one to ask. I should have wondered how she knew I was coming in early. Or why she was fixing me lunch when she never had done so before.
But no. She asked if I would eat to please her. To satisfy some longing she had to watch a miserable, disappointed, despairing woman eat a grilled tuna sandwich at her plastic table.
So I ate the stupid 2000-something calorie meal and watched as she bustled about the kitchen in do-nothing activity that mystified me. I ate every blessed crumb and drank the dregs of the cocoa only slightly surprised that there was a tiny Jesus face on the bottom of the cup.
When I slipped into bed that night, I looked out the window at the sky. Blackness filled the upper echelons of the cityscape, but a few stars twinkled, determined, I guess, not to let the night speak for them.
Christmas was what I had expected, disappointing, yet enthralling none-the-less. Confusion and grief had blanketed my soul. But the light from a golden box spoke of a presence beyond my sight. And an old woman fed me.
I will die someday. But not in despair.
Books by A. K. Frailey
Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels
OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN
OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF
OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ
OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)
OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)
Science Fiction Novels
Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg
Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN
It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz
Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l
My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey
The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings
The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5